The dangerisation of cycling?

Several years ago, Jonathan Maus of Bike Portland began his crusade to excise labels such as “cyclist” from the vocabulary of cycling advocates.

Earlier today, he discovered this paper on the “Language of Promoting Cycling from New Zealand transportation researcher Glen Koorey at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. Maus is obviously delighted to find this paper “about all the cycling language stuff I’ve been pontificating about for years!”

Koorey believes labels such as “cyclists” identifies us as the scary “other” in the context of communicating to the general public. But I’d like to touch on another hotbutton that Koorey addresses: what he calls “The Dangerisation of Cycling.”

Bicyclists use extreme caution

If you ask many people why they don’t cycle and they will respond “because it’s not safe”. While we probably all can think of particular cycling hazards in our districts, this perception of the danger of cycling is not helped by much of the discussion that goes with cycling, whether from advocates, politicians, professionals, researchers or the media.

The media are also commonly guilty of emphasising the safety aspects of cycling. For example, in March this year, over half of the front page of the main Christchurch newspaper was devoted to coverage of two deaths and three serious injuries to cyclists the previous weekend (The Press 2007). At the bottom of this, a couple of paragraphs mentioned the fact that two other motor vehicle occupants had also died in New Zealand that weekend. And it was only on the inside page that details were given of a horrific two-car crash that saw nine people injured.

This is not an isolated case; many cycle deaths seem to make front page news (which perhaps reflects the relative rarity of such an event), whereas the countless other road deaths are mere column filler. Any road death is a tragedy but, with the relative prominence often given to cyclists killed, is it any wonder that many people are wary of getting onto the saddle themselves?

All of this doesn’t mean that we should do nothing to improve provision for cycling, by the various means mentioned previously. But they will be of little use if we continue to build an image of cycling as a dangerous activity. Given the societal and personal costs of an increasingly motorised society, it actually seems more dangerous not to cycle.

There’s significant snippage above so I invite you to read the full PDF for yourself.

I’m writing this not long after learning of this fatality on Skyline Road just south of Highway 84 / La Honda Road in San Mateo County, California. This road route is very popular among many of my friends, so it hits close to home even as the victim’s name currently remains unknown.

Reporting on risks to cyclists to influence public policy while avoiding the ‘dangerisation’ of cycling is a tough balance to achieve, and I’m not quite sure how to achieve that.


  1. Yeah, more often I’m dismayed at the *lack* of coverage given to cycling accidents, here in the Austin area.

  2. While using risks to cyclists as a policy lever is super tempting and super popular, I sure wish nobody did it. Cycling in the street with zero facilities can be as safe or more safe than any other mode when done well. Promoting infra is OK with me, lets just do it because it attracts more riders as a great alternative to driving and leave the bogeyman out of it. The policy lever should be reduced congestion, pollution, health care cost, road building cost, etc. Too bad fatalities are the best attention grabbers for media, I guess.

  3. Firstly, I should preface this by saying that I’m not saying cycling is unsafe – it’s very safe indeed – twice as safe as driving over a short (<5 mile) commute. So I'm totally with Richard on the 'dangerization' issue. But what I'm about to say touches on 'relative' safety.

    While I respect Rantwick's opinion, promoting infrastructure is not okay with me: I live in Maryland, where it is illegal for cyclists to use the road if there is a bike lane present. The safety of specialized bike facilities has been studied many times over the last 40 years in Europe and in the US, and the studies overwhelmingly find specialized cycling facilities to be less safe for cyclists than cycling in the general traffic lane. Also, even if using the road is legal where a bicycle facility is present, doing so increases the level of bullying from motorists who don't understand that we have a choice.

    As a cyclist, I demand the same freedom of choice that every other type of road user enjoys. Bicycle facilities, as they exist currently, deny me that, and they make me less safe. That is why I'm against all of them: no matter how good they may seem, they are always a second class solution.

    As for the excision of the word 'cyclist' from the vocabulary of cycling advocates, I'm against it. I am a cyclist, and if some people think that makes me a 'road nigger', that's their problem. I'm tired of cycling advocates trying to find ways of hiding the prejudice of motorists and I'm tired of advocates trying to make me feel more comfortable at the back of the bus. If populist cycling advocates spent 1/10th the time they spend lobbying for bike lanes and devoted it to the root of the problem – motorist ignorance – we might get somewhere.

  4. Every bike collision is worthy of being, particularly the fatalities. It allows other cyclists – the ‘alive’ ones, to investigate and learn from the incident. In the case of this particular awful tragedy of NRDC treasurer, Joy Covey, she was going downhill, and the truck turned left in front of her – every intersection is a potential crash, esp. when biking fast – that’s what went through my mind as I read the details.

  5. The reason cycling gets a 36% mode share in Copenhagen despite their weather is because they have an extensive network of safe, protected bikeways. We’ll never get a significant number of cyclists without such a network. The crash and injury statistics on cycling in the door lane of a street designed for car traffic do not even capture the real deterrent: the nearly constant threat of serious injury or death. When I get home after a ride through the city in which 15 cars stopped just short of killing me, I do not feel unscathed. Just because I’m still alive does not make it safe. The only reason to downplay the real or perceived danger is if you’re going to give up on a network of safe, protected bikeways and just make the best of what you’ve got. I’m not giving up yet.

  6. Chicago, you’re wrong. Copenhagen gets a 36% mode share not because the network of roadways is safe, but because cyclists BELIEVE the network of protected bikeways is safe. Studies done in Denmark show that such bikeways are less safe than the road. Perception always trumps reality. That’s why we in the US are still busy building segregated bike facilities that are very popular among American cyclists, but which Danish transportation engineers are beginning to consign to the scrap heap and replacing with an integrated strategy.

  7. What I meant was that people’s feelings about safety and threat are relevant. You may be more likely to die by drinking and driving on a base in North Carolina than on deployment in Iraq, but the fact that when you’re deployed you’re surrounded by people who are trying hard to kill you matters. Which is why you’re more likely to come home with PTSD from Iraq than from North Carolina, and why there will always be many more cyclists on protected bikeways than mixing in traffic with cars. Someday I hope we have enough protected bikeways to profoundly change the way Americans feel about biking and, like the Danes, we can move on to making even the streets with car traffic safe for biking.

  8. Ian,
    Wow, that was a pretty ignorant reply. Did you read the attached paper that this article was siting?

  9. Here’s a thought – framing the dangers in the context of 32 thousand annual deaths and two million injuries from car crashes. In Atherton yesterday a hit and run driver killed a pedestrian at Glenwood and Middlefield and a vehicle passenger was killed in a crash at El Camino and Selby, an intersection that is also dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists; cars go fast and the turns have poor visibility. In US culture we take for granted the inevitability of “accidents.” Off the freeway, slower driving speeds and safer street design helps everyone.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.